Russia’s Divergent Interests in Syria and Iran

Article Summary
Russia plays two distinct roles in the Iranian nuclear crisis and the Syrian upheaval. In both cases, it has sought to prolong the conflict in order to occupy the US and the West and dampen their regional influence. It sees Iran in terms of a “gained” interest, while its historical relationship with Syria makes it a “threatened interest,” writes Habib Fayyad.

Former Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address to the [43rd] Munich Security Conference in 2007 signaled Moscow’s resumption of a new phase in its Cold War with the United States, and with the West in general. [These statements] came after almost two decades of isolation, in which Russia worked on rebuilding the Russian Empire following the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, Putin stated: “Unipolarity plagues our world today... The US legal system has overstepped its national bounds in every [possible] way. [Its overreach] is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. [We] do not need to replace the UN by NATO or the EU.”

Putin's statements [hinted at] what appeared to be a new Russian strategy in its debates with the West. Although Putin [currently] does not hold the Russian presidency, his angels are present [in the cabinet], and his return [to the presidency] is imminent. There is no doubt that [Putin’s] successor, incumbent President Dimitry Medvedev, is better suited to handle the conflicts [with the West] - regardless of the rumored tactical differences between the two men. In consequence, Russia’s uncompromising approach to the Wests handling of vital [Middle Eastern crises] - specifically those of Syria and Iran - is not surprising.

Although Moscow in theory stands with both Tehran and Damascus in their crises with the West, the status of Syria in Russian [strategic] calculations is much different than that of Iran. Russia support to Iran stems from considerations of “gained” interests, whereas its support for Syria is derived from considerations of “threatened” interests. This explains the flexibility that Russia has frequently [exhibited] towards the West in the face of the Iranian nuclear crisis, while it has been more severe in its [approach] to the Syrian crisis. Russia and Iran share a common hostility to the Western camp. Russia and Syria, however, also share a historical friendship in addition to this enmity. Therefore, Russia’s stance toward Tehran falls within the context of a “supportive” strategy. On the other hand, Moscow’s support for Damascus can only be explained through an “adoptive” strategy. Russia's support for Iran in the UN Security Council is based on inhibiting US superiority. Meanwhile, its stance on Syria stems from a [historical principle of support] to the Syrian regime. [Russia seeks] to block [Syria’s] opponents from confronting it under the guise of the Arab Spring.

The issue of Iran’s nuclear program has offered Russia a perfect chance to regain its status as an active pole in the international arena. It has striven to keep the Syria in limbo between a peaceful solution and a military settlement. On the surface, [Russia] has approved four international resolutions condemning Iran, but it has still to take action to convince it to half its nuclear project. [Russia] has been doing its best to ensure the continuation and sustainability of the crisis. It has been doing so to weaken US supremacy in the region, and in the process has disregarded its pending issues with Iran in the Caspian Sea. Russia has chosen to ignore [the possibility that] Iran may turn into a regional superpower in a way that might conflict with its interests [in the region].

Moscow sees the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to redraw red lines in front of the US’ [uncontrollable influence] in the region. [It also sees the crisis] as an opportunity to form regional and international alliances. Moscow might not be able to pull Syria from its domestic crisis, but it can certainly prevent the same kind of scenario from developing in other Arab countries [that witnessed] revolutions. This is why from the outset [Russia] has committed to the three “No’s”: “No” to a change in the regime, “No” to sanctions, and “No” to military intervention [in Syria].

The balance of the Iranian-Western crisis lies with Russia, [and it is in a position to mediate between the two sides]. It’s Syrian card is more powerful, as it [may use this crisis to strike out at the West if it so desires]. The question is now whether or not Russia will choose to do so.

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